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Essay: Carrying Our Courage, From Immigrant Stories to Refugee Stories

We all carry with us family and stories, courage and heart, intangible assets which help make us who we are, help us imagine what we could be.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang with her son at 5th grade graduation in Michigan, June 2015
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang with her son at 5th grade graduation in Michigan, June 2015Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

My 11-year-old son, who we all call Little Brother, is incredulous when he finds out that my grandmother, his great-grandmother, was born in Japan. “We’re Japanese?!!” he asks.

“No, we’re not,” I explain. “She just happened to be born there because her father, your great-great-grandfather, was there with Sun Yat-sen planning the revolution to overthrow the Chinese emperor.”

“What?” he asks. “We overthrew the emperor?!!”

“Well, sort of…”

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang’s maternal great grandparents and their nine children in China, 1935. Wang’s maternal grandmother, who happened to be born in Japan at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake, is in the center of the back row.Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

It is a rare moment between Nintendo DS games and homework and soccer that Little Brother has come down the stairs to hang out in the kitchen with me while I write. He is searching for stories “just in case” he has to write about our family history for his sixth grade social studies class.

We start in Imperial China, but end up in modern day Syria.

He tells me what he remembers about the dramatic story of his great-grandfather, who was a four-star general under Chiang Kai-shek and a Flying Tiger who trained in Texas, and how he flew the last plane out of China just as the Communists came crashing through the gate onto the airfield.

I close my laptop.

I tell him about his other great-grandmother, who was in the first generation of women to not have her feet bound and to attend university, and how she traveled around the countryside in her braids giving speeches against the Japanese who were trying to take over China at the time.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang’s maternal grandfather as a young pilot about to take his first solo flight in China, 1934. He left home at 19 to join the military because his parents could not afford his higher education, and he later became a Flying Tiger, a four star general, and second in command of the ROC Air Force.Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

There are some blanks to fill. The differences between ROC and PRC, the Nationalists versus the Communists, the Sino-Japanese war and the Chinese civil war; the difference between Mandarin, which we speak, and Taiwanese which the moms at Chinese school speak, and how Taiwan was allied with the United States, and then it was not; why Chinese Communist forces did not simply follow his great-grandfather’s plane across the Taiwan Strait, and how to spell strait.

“What?!” he stops. “Taiwan is an island?!!”

“You don’t know that Taiwan is an island?”

“Is that why there’s that chili pepper on all our Taiwan keychains?”

Aiya. How did I forget to teach him that Taiwan is an island?

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang’s father with his parents in Taiwan as he is about to leave home to start over in America as an international student with only $50 in his pocket, 1964.Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

It is getting late, almost 10:00 on a school night, but I do not make him go to bed. Not yet. Instead, I make us another cup of tea as his sister comes to join us.

This is Little Brother’s first year of middle school, not an easy time. He comes home so deflated some days because he does not like the bullying and racism he sees all around him, regardless of whether he is the target.

We all carry with us family and stories, courage and heart, intangible assets which help make us who we are, help us imagine what we could be.

He is also worried about what to do in case he forgets his lunch.

“It’s ok,” I tell him. “You have free lunch. Just give the lunch lady your student ID and it’s all taken care of.”

With these stories, he is no longer the too-tall kid in the too-short pants whose too-poor mom works too many jobs. He is not simply the hapa Asian-American boy warned to not wear a hoodie because he looks more Hispanic than Chinese. He does not need to prove to anyone that he can speak Chinese to be Chinese, or English to be American. With these stories, he becomes more than our current circumstances, more than our bank balance, and more than the color of our skin.

Suddenly, we have gone from talking about family to talking about socioeconomic class.

There is so much about class that cannot be seen, that takes time to be revealed, especially across continents and history — like privilege, education, how we carry ourselves, luck.

Our family comes from revolutionaries and war heroes and freedom fighters, from educators and engineers, and troublemakers and beauties (and beauties who are also troublemakers).

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang with her mother at graduation from USC School of Education in CaliforniaCourtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Little Brother’s favorite story is the one about the cow, which, somehow, in the years of retelling, has become a “funny” story. As bombs dropped overhead, everyone scattered to find shelter. One bomb landed where a sister had gone to hide, and everyone thought she was lost. But instead, the bomb had hit a cow, and the sister walked out of the dust unscathed. Luck.

These stories rejuvenate him. They lift him up. He can imagine himself bigger than what he can see.

We. Are. So. Cool.

Yet there are those who would reduce us to a single word — immigrant, refugee, minority, poor — and dare to look down on us when, really, it is just an accident of time and place and luck that any of us are born where and when we are.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang with her parents, newly arrived international students, in California. Wang’s father, who worked several jobs while going to school, often recalled that time as so financially difficult but among his happiest times.Courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

And suddenly we have gone from talking about class to talking about Syria.

I think about the Syrian children three generations from now who will be telling their grandchildren about how they fled with their families in a small boat on a large sea, everything left behind. How they had to learn another language and attend a new school. How kids were mean to them on the playground and adults were mean to them at work. How everyone had to start over again, regardless, repeatedly. How professionals became laborers, and laborers became professionals, and everyone worked three jobs to survive — and thrive.

That is my father’s story.

Perhaps it is your story, too.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang with her father on her eighth birthday in CaliforniaCourtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

The other night, former U.S. Senator Carl Levin walked onto the elevator at the law school as I was walking off, and I was so starstruck that all I could do was say hello, although I almost blurted out, "I'm teaching here tonight. I’m teaching at a law school." I do not know why, but I wanted him to be proud of me, to know what I have made of myself, that I am finally beginning to walk out of the crush of the recession and the heartlessness of divorce. I wanted to tell him my story.

We all carry with us family and stories, courage and heart, intangible assets which help make us who we are, help us imagine what we could be.

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This essay was developed with the support of The Association of Opinion Journalists (AOJ) and The Poynter Institute’s Minority Writers Seminar.